Since 2003 Iraq has become a source and destination for a thriving sex trade and forced labor market. The State Department has tried to document some of this activity in its annual “Trafficking In Persons Report,” which was just released in June. Iraq has made some effort to address this growing problem, apparently enough to satisfy the U.S. government, which gave it a better rank this year.
The State Department surveys countries around the world and how they deal with human trafficking. Those nations are then broken down into three tiers. Tier 1 are governments that acknowledge they have a problem, have made an effort to solve it each year, and meets America’s minimum standards. Tier 2 are nations that do not fully comply with the State Department’s standards, but are making an effort to do so. Tier 2 Watch List are countries that don’t fully comply, are making an effort, but where trafficking is either increasing or the state has failed to provide evidence that it is working harder at it. Tier 3 are those that don’t follow U.S. standards, and are not making an effort to do so. From 2009-2012 Iraq was Tier 2 Watch List, but in 2013 it moved up to Tier 2. The State Department has always said that Iraq has tried to address this issue, but not done enough. Now it feels that Baghdad has improved. 2012 was the first time the authorities said that sex trafficking was a problem, and it passed an anti-trafficking law, and set up an anti-trafficking department in the Interior Ministry as a result. In January 2013, the Health Ministry ordered each province to set up a victim support units for trafficking victims. A Central Committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons was put together, and it has started to work with international organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the issue as well. Still, there is a huge gap between what’s on paper and actual implementation. For instance, Baghdad has not investigated any officials implicated in trafficking. It hasn’t tried to identify or help victims of forced labor or sex trafficking, and the number of actual investigations is minimal. In 2012, there were only 7 investigation of sex trafficking, five for child begging rings, and one for domestic servitude. There were five prosecutions of child begging rings as well. While the government sent some trafficking victims to NGOs, it didn’t fund or aid those groups, and prohibited them from running shelters for victims. In Kurdistan, there was some progress as well as the regional authorities shut down businesses and labor brokers that were involved in forced labor, but no one was prosecuted. The State Department’s rankings were not based upon how large a problem trafficking was in each country, but rather how much the government was trying to address it. 2012-2013 was the first year that Iraq showed any kind of serious movement on this front, which was why it went from Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 2.
Gangs have organized children into begging rings (Dananer Economic News Agency)
If Iraq were judged by the levels of its illegal activities it would not have gotten such a positive score. Men, women, and children are shipped in and out of the country for the sex trade and forced labor. People from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iran, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia have all gone in and out of Iraq for these criminal enterprises. In Tikrit, prostitution rings have been reported. Sex trafficking networks are run through Baghdad, Kirkuk, and into Syria. Gangs involved in prostitution exist in Irbil, Dohuk, and Sulaymaniya. These women are recruited through a number of means. NGOs have reported that organized crime rings rape women on film, and use that to blackmail them into the sex trade. They also bail women out of jail, and then force them to pay off their debt. In Tamim and Salahaddin provinces, the security forces have been accused of kidnapping women, and forcing them into prostitution. Some girls and women are pressured into the trade to support their families who live in poverty. Temporary marriages are another tool used where families receive a dowry, and in return their daughters are put into the sex industry. Syrian refugees in Kurdistan have also been forced into the business. Women from Iran, China, and the Philippines have been brought to Iraq for prostitution as well. In the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) gangs pay off officials to ignore trafficking cases. Forced labor is no less of a problem. People from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Georgia, Jordan, Ethiopia, and Uganda have all been forced into jobs such as construction, security, cleaners, handymen, and domestic workers in Iraq. Some are told they will be going to Jordan or the Gulf States, but end up in Iraq instead where their passports are taken, and they are forced to work. Some workers know they are heading to Iraq, but their conditions and terms are not what they were originally told. For these reasons Nepal bans its workers from going to Iraq. Finally there are gangs that force children into begging rings. The extent of trafficking in Iraq is as bad as ever despite the new measures by the government. More importantly much of the sex trade is run by mafias, which are connected to government officials and the security forces, and therefore will never be prosecuted for their crimes. Forced labor is a product of Iraq’s growing economy, and the fact that many Iraqis feel that they are better than some of the manual labor needed throughout the country. Companies therefore rely upon foreign workers, and have no problem if they are free or forced into the jobs.
Iraq might have gotten a better ranking this year by the State Department, but that doesn’t mean that the country is combating trafficking more effectively. Rather the new laws and committees are unlikely to have any real affect upon these criminal activities. As long as gangs have money to pay off officials they can go about their business largely untouched. Forced labor on the other hand, is not considered a real issue by the authorities. That means every now and then a ring might be broken up, and the government can announce a new piece of legislation has been passed, but the sex trade and forced labor will continue on as Iraq plays a crucial role in the movement of people throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia.
United States Department of State, “Trafficking In Persons Report,” June 2013